Under Watertown’s new demolition delay ordinance, a large number of homes will no longer have to go through the Historical Commission process to do additions or even to tear them down, but those that do go before the Commission could be subject to a much longer demolition delay.
The City Council adopted the changes to the demolition delay ordinance on Aug. 8 on a split vote. Along with extending the maximum demolition delay to 24 months, it also makes it so many properties do not have to go before the Historical Commission (so won’t face a delay), and also adds language to stop projects that remove or change the building enough so it loses the historical significance, called substantial demolitions.
The Historical Commission wanted to increase the maximum demolition delay from 12 months to 24 months in an effort to save historic buildings from being torn down, said Elise Loukas, chair of the Historical Commission.
“The purpose of the delay ordinance is to give people who recently purchased a property or have one under contract time to consider options for preserving the home,” Loukas said. “People made part of their plan to wait out the (12 month) delay (in the previous ordinance). The Commission has been extremely judicious about reviews of the applications.”
One recent historic home on which a demolition delay was placed was the Shick House, which stood on land that Buckingham Browne & Nichols purchased and turned into an athletic field. Efforts were made to find someone to save the house and move it to another site, but they proved unsuccessful. An example of a home that was saved from being demolished is the Orchard House on Belmont Street, which is now part of the Beacon School.
Larry Field, a Senior Planner in the Planning Department, said that unlike many communities, Watertown faces an unusual situation where many single family homes are located in two-family zones, where a two family home can be built by right.
“The strong housing market in Greater Boston has made Watertown an attractive place for older homes to be demolished and replaced by two-family homes,” Field said at the Council meeting. “That is a good thing, in that we need housing, and in many cases that is a very appropriate thing to happen to that property. But at issue tonight is how we can encourage preservation of historic buildings.”
Another intent of the new ordinance is to decrease the number of cases in front of the Commission by having Planning staff review whether the building meets the criteria for being historically significant. If not, the project would not have to go to the Historical Commission for approval.
Homes and buildings that can potentially be historically significant must be at least 50 years old, and meet certain criteria, Field said. The building must be importantly associated with one or more persons or events or with broad architectural, cultural, political, economic, or social history of the city or the Commonwealth, or, the building is historical or architecturally important in terms of period, style, method of construction, or associated with a recognized architecture planner, either by itself or in context with other buildings.
While many homes fall into the 50+ years old category, Field said that few actually will actually go through the Historical Commission process. Since the demolition delay was instituted in 1997, there have been 250 applications, and 38 of those had demolition delays. In most cases, homeowners will have a streamlined process.
“This will save significant time and money for applicants, and also focuses the Commission on the important cases,” Field said.
The proposal, and the timing of the public hearing, drew concern and opposition from several people who spoke at the Council meeting.
John Labadini, president of the Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association, said that he received multiple calls and messages from people in town who are concerned about the changes, and asked if the vote could be postponed by 30 days so people could get a better understanding of the new ordinance.
Steve Corbett, who works on home projects in Watertown and is a former Councilor, said that he worries that thousands of homeowners could have their property rights limited, and might not even know. Particularly, he opposed extending the demolition delay.
“A two-year demolition delay is not reasonable,” Corbett said. “It would make Watertown the most extreme of all surrounding communities. Any viable options can certainly occur in a year.”
John Cimino, owner of a company that both renovates historic homes and also replaces older homes with new ones, said that the delay can be costly. Waiting 12 months to start a project because of the demolition delay costs about $90,000 in interest, he said, so the new delay would double that amount.
Field said that 24 months is the maximum delay, and that the Commission can consider six months, 12 months, or other periods of delay.
City Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli was on the Economic Development and Planning Committee that sent the proposed ordinance to the Council after multiple hearings. He added that developers may not have to wait the entire 24 months (or whatever delay is placed on the property) if they can show that they have “made a continued and bona fide and reasonable effort to find a purchaser to preserve, rehabilitate and restore a historically significant building and that the efforts have been unsuccessful.”
“All this is asking is to go back to the Commission and say we have done our due diligence, nobody wants to buy it,” Piccirilli said. “The Historical Commission, after six months, can remove the demolition delay. It doesn’t have to wait the full 24 months.”
Some people said they wanted to know more specifics about how the process will work.
Resident Elodia Thomas said that the Council should not be voting on a change impacting so many properties in August, when many people are away. She said people need to know more about whether their properties fall into the historically significant category, and added that the City should have done a survey of properties to develop an inventory of historic homes and buildings before making the change.
Resident Linda Scott said she wanted to know what criteria and documentation will be used when determining if a building is historic and should go in front of the Commission.
Multiple people noted that only one other community in Massachusetts has a 24-month delay — Milton. Brookline and Newton have 18 month maximum delays, Field said.
Loukas called the demolition delay one tool communities can use to preserve historic buildings.
“One reason you don’t see more towns with 24 months is they have other tools,” Loukas said. “Towns like Lexington have multiple historic districts. That means that they can’t do anything with those — it takes a lot to get anything changed in those houses. Those communities don’t need 24 months because they have historic districts protecting all those houses.”
Residents and developers also worried that the new rules about substantial demolitions would make it harder for people to put on an addition, or add a floor to their homes.
The definition of a substantial demolition includes removing 50 percent or more of the roof, removing any portion of the roofline ridge, or removal of an exterior wall.
Councilor Tony Palomba worried that the new rules could make it more difficult for people looking to increase the size of their homes.
“To me that is pretty broad and you could find yourself wanting to expand your house and could find yourself under the substantial demolition definition,” Palomba said.
Piccirilli said that the intent of the ordinance is to encourage people to expand their homes, rather than to tear it down and build a bigger one. He added that the rules about whether a building proposed for demolition has to go to the Historical Commission for review also apply to substantial demolition projects.
“That doesn’t make it a historic preferably preserved building that automatically gets the demolition delay,” Piccirilli said, who added that the Planning staff would review to see if the building is historically significant and if not the project would not be subject to a delay.
The substantial demolition section is aimed at projects that come into the Planning office as renovation projects, but the result changes the building so much that it is no longer historic, Field said.
“We want homeowners to renovate their home, that’s not a bad thing. Often it is the right thing to do: add a floor or an addition,” Field said. “(The new ordinance) is not aimed at that. It is aimed at an acquisition, taking a one family and go to a two-family and demolishing that (one family) completely. We have some instances where the renovation application goes so far that it transforms the character of the building.
City Manager George Proakis, who worked in the planning departments in Somerville and Lowell for 20 years before coming to Watertown, said that a challenge he has faced is that most demolition ordinances in Massachusetts date back to the 1990s, and “a lot of them came off a state template that, quite honestly, is just not that great.”
He said the new ordinance creates an “off ramp” for projects that may meet the age requirement, over 50 years old, but are not historically significant.
“If you have a 1920s era garage, yes technically it falls under the ordinance but there is nothing significant about it,” Proakis said. “Having a subcommittee or staff committee or some group say you don’t need to go to the Historical Commission is a very valuable addition.”
The proposal did not sit well with City Council President Mark Sideris. He noted that the State recommends an 18 month delay, Cambridge has a 12 month delay. While there are some improvements to the process in the new ordinance, Sideris said he did not like the extended demolition delay.
“The point I am trying to make is we’ve done many demolition delays. They haven’t resulted in us saving houses,” Sideris said. “I’m not supporting adding another 12 months to let houses sit, rot, grass growing around it and houses falling apart, just for the sake of adding 12 months. I don’t see where that makes sense.”
The Council approved the new ordinance by a vote of 6-3, with Emily Izzo, John Airasian, and Sideris voting “no.”